Here’s the math on “Edge of Tomorrow”: 100 minutes of scary, clever and occasionally funny science fiction, six minutes of Hollywood’s usual failure of nerve, seven minutes of credits. By anybody’s grading system, that’s a high ratio of competence to cop-out.
Director Doug Liman worked from a script by Christopher McQuarrie and brothers Jez and John-Henry Butterworth. They in turn adapted “All You Need Is Kill,” a Japanese science fiction novel by Hiroshi Sakurazaka. (And a better title, no?)
The film keeps the central idea: A new recruit in the United Defense Force, pressed into service against an alien attack on Earth, accidentally acquires the power to restart his day every time he dies, though he retains the knowledge of what has happened to him.
A Special Forces expert realizes his accumulated knowledge will allow Earth’s armies to defeat the aliens; she goes through training and battle with him, killing him each time they get a little closer to victory but fail. Naturally, no one around them can believe this scenario.
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The film makes him both an American, a major named William Cage (Tom Cruise), and a coward: He’s a public relations guy who joined the Army to avoid combat and blunders toward death. (Comrades relying on him find this amusing, which seems improbable.) When he doesn’t stay dead, British supersoldier Rita Vrataski (Emily Blunt) takes him under her heavily armed wing, introducing him to a scientist (Noah Taylor) who’s invented a weapon only Cage can use.
Cruise gets to give both kinds of performance he does best: the smiling shyster trying to con his way out of trouble and the grim-lipped hero, indefatigable and impregnable. (Naturally, he does physically impossible feats. What Cruise movie doesn’t have them?) Blunt remains steely and smart – she wields a sharpened cricket bat in the field! – and they’re supported by Bill Paxton and Brendan Gleeson as military men unprepared to listen to unreason.
The film doesn’t dig deep into character: We don’t find out much about what happens to a man’s psyche when he knows he’ll die dozens of times, except that he gets bitterly ironic. Yet Liman’s direction, which hasn’t had such vigor since “The Bourne Identity,” never loses speed and purpose; vivid action scenes with fast, terrifying aliens don’t wear us down. (Strangely, the cinematography looks flat and washed-out when we’re not on the battlefield.)
He and the writers move inexorably toward an ending that would be intelligent, even courageous by big-studio standards, then abandon it for one that smells of endless audience testing. Crowd-pleasing though it may be, it makes no sense by the rules of the narrative.
Still, that’s a smallish drawback. “Oblivion,” the 2013 science fiction dud in which Cruise died again and again in an alien war, never got off the ground. “Edge of Tomorrow” aims for heights of suspense and often reaches them.